The Blue Ridge Style
Traditional shaped-note singers from the Blue Ridge Mountains have an unmistakable sound. Typically, they sing slower than singers of other shaped-note styles, allowing for a more pronounced blending of all four harmony parts. Some singers add written and unwritten embellishments that are passed down through the generations - these ornaments were even studied in a well-known doctoral dissertation. Tempo, harmony, ornamentation - all of these created an expressive sound that is unique to the Blue Ridge style.
Why is there a distinct style in the Blue Ridge? Perhaps it stems from the actual shaped-note books that were prevalent in the area. Additionally, singing school masters usually taught in a localized geographical region or "territory" of sorts and bore much influence on their students. And was the rich ballad tradition found in the mountains an influence on the style - especially the ornamentation?
At the Quay Smathers Memorial Singing School, we will listen to archival recordings of Blue Ridge shaped-note singers and pay close attention to their unique sound. A discussion with contributions from our singing masters will also bring to light some of the nuances found in the mountain singers' style. And, most importantly, the legacy of perhaps the best known Blue Ridge shaped-note singer will be kindly passed down to you with personal attention and the mentoring he was known for.
This photo was taken at a home in Dutch Cove which is south of Canton, NC. (The house is still standing.) Most likely many in the photo attended one of the countless singing schools held in Dutch Cove from the late 1800s through the 1930s. Morning Star United Methodist Church, just a few miles from the home, held its 125th continuous shaped-note singing in 2015. Quay Smathers also grew up a short distance from this location and attended singing schools in Dutch Cove as well as other communities in Western North Carolina. He assumed the leadership of the singing at Morning Star until his death in 1997.
Listen to Laura Boosinger lead this haunting version of William Walker's "French Broad" as found in The Christian Harmony. This recording done by Don Wiley 12/05/2015 in Marshall, NC, exemplifies the Blue Ridge style and was made at the dedication of the facsimile edition of the book published by Zack Allen of Folk Heritage Books. For more recordings from that day visit Don's website for the Old Fields Singers.
Other recordings of Blue Ridge style shaped-note singers are also on the Listen and Mixed Media pages of this website.